Toxic Stress

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We live in a stressful world. Advancements in technology and communications allow us to work from home, multitask, and ultimately burnout faster. With all these pressures on productivity, how do we know the difference between healthy stress, the kind that keeps us accountable, and the toxic stress, that burns us out, leaving us feeling fatigued? Research shows childhood experiences play a major role in how we develop our abilities to manage stress. A child that has experienced at least four toxically stressful events is 15 times more likely to attempt suicide, 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, and 4 times more likely to become an alcoholic or intravenous drug user.

Stress comes to us in three levels: positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress. Positive stress is healthy. It is the internal alarm clock that gets us to get up and get tasks done. Tolerable stress is activated during significant life events, such as the loss of a loved one, a catastrophic event, or a frightening injury. If a person has supports in place to help them recover from these events, the physical and emotional effects are temporary. Toxic Stress occurs when there is a strong, frequent, or prolonged exposure to extreme stressors like emotional abuse, neglect, financial hardship, or a lack of support. This kind of stress can disrupt the development of the brain and other organ systems, increasing the risk of stress related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, substance use, and depression.

Well, what do we do about it? Identifying toxic stress at a young age is the best way to prevent stress related diseases, (don’t get the rest of this sentence and don’t end sentence in “to”) as good and bad habits grow in relation to what we are exposed to. Since behaviors are reinforced as we develop, the cells in our brain either survive or fail to thrive based on life experiences and our genetics. A brain that has learned to manage stressors is typically more capable of identifying a situation, interpreting and processing it, evaluating options, and ultimately acting. Someone that does not have healthy conflict resolution skills will likely react to a situation in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze, meaning they either react aggressively, withdrawal from the threat, or stall in fear or panic. These reactions occur as the brain’s alarm system is triggered. While these are natural physiological responses, they can be overcome by learning effective coping skills. Imagine it as a stoplight, where red is stop, yellow is think of options, and green is acting on the best option. Someone who has not learned how to manage stressors will only have their stoplight work on red and green, and we’ve all been in those situations where a moment of thought or reflection like would have changed the outcome of an event.

Fortunately, we can all learn to manage toxic stress. By building resiliency and learning effective coping skills children, and adults, that display toxic stress symptoms can lead productive healthy lives. We, though especially children, can learn new ways of thinking, relating, and responding, which helps to have our internal “stoplights” develop and strengthen. Building positive relationships with other healthy mindful people can show us new and productive ways to view the world, and ourselves. By engaging with young minds, we can help them build trust with others, develop connections that are necessary for a child’s healthy self-esteem, and help decrease isolation and feelings of rejection. Most importantly we can learn, and teach others, to have a positive outlook on life, be advocates for others and mental wellness, and utilize healthy coping skills and problem solving techniques in our daily lives.


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